After more than forty years of touring and releasing records it seems that The Stranglers are a band that can still electrify audiences, they have been playing to increasingly packed venues over the last ten years with an exciting live show that showcases the band’s hugely underrated back catalogue.
I spoke to bassist JJ Burnel about the band’s upcoming UK tour how the set list gets put together, and relationships within the band both past and present.
We spoke the day after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris meaning that JJ was in an understandably sombre mood as he spoke to me from his home in the South of France. Recognising this I initially asked him about those horrific events which had clearly had an effect on him. He spoke fervently about the need for free speech and commented on the irony of him listening to a piece of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta on the BBC that morning, “a document that talks about the freedom of speech and freedom of expression”.
Having duly and properly acknowledged this we then went on to talk about the band’s upcoming tour and I started by asking him how Jet (Black) was, and whether he was going to be able to play on the tour?
We don’t know is the simple answer. He wants to be part of it but even when he came along last year, you know he’s been less and less of a presence live wise, but he’s still lurking in the shadows, and he still has an influence in the band.
It’s just difficult. He was Mr Rock and Roll, and several decades down the line there’s a price to pay. Last year he did 20 minutes in the first show, which was down to 10 minutes by the second show and he was having to have oxygen as soon as he came off stage. His body’s just giving up, and has been for a few years really.
It’s not a sudden thing…We’ll have to see.
What sort of influence does Jet still have on the band?
Well he’s got an opinion!
He’s a very opinionated old geezer (said very affectionately) and always has been.
He has an opinion on what we do and how we write, and sometimes it’s completely contradictory to the rest of us. That fuels debate, and within the Stranglers that’s always been highly considered.
I have been coming to see you live for many years now it strikes me that the live shows have been building up: the venues fuller and the crowds more diverse. Last year’s 40th Anniversary ‘Ruby’ tour was a particular high point. Do you feel that there is extra pressure on you now?
Not at all, you can put as much pressure on yourself as you want.
We’re not promoting anything. We’re going out because we enjoy playing together so much. It’s amazing the feedback we’ve been getting for the last ten years. It has been getting better and better and more and more fun. There has been more of a communion with our audience in recent years. It’s a symbiotic relationship with the fans and I’d die if I couldn’t play any more.
The audience is more mixed than ever before. There are people who gave up on us during the Paul Roberts and Jon Ellis years; then there are people who stuck with us; and a whole new young audience too: those who look at the world in a slightly different way and think: “I like this bunch of old bastards, I know some of their music, I want to familiarise myself with their stuff because they’re not like Pop Idol or the X Factor”. People see us as being ‘the real thing’ and I think we have integrity. So people are coming to see us for all different reasons.
So has that resurgence come since you became a four piece again, and Baz (Warne) took a bigger role?
It started with Norfolk Coast (Album released in 2004 while the band were still a five-piece), but yeah that started people sitting up and paying attention. But you’re right when we became a four piece it suddenly clicked again, obviously The Stranglers should have always been a four piece (laughs).
Do you think that that was because you were able to do the vocals as well?
All I do know is that there are a certain set of circumstances, one of which was that I got back into singing again, which I hadn’t done having given it up completely for 15 years. So there are many contributing factors…
Baz seems to fit so well with the other three (original members of the Stranglers), you seem to be so good as a unit.
[Baz joining] meant that we just clicked again. It’s like with any team, one person can change everything and that has happened with Baz. [The relationship] between me and Baz is reminiscent of my early days with Hugh (Cornwell). Then we would bounce things off each other and write songs together, presenting them to the rest of the band and then things just clicked. But then [with Hugh] things went a bit sour with success, which brings its own set of problems. But so far Baz and I get on really well socially and musically, and we’re now starting to get some new pieces together.
One thing that struck me with last year’s tour is that you played at least one track off every album, and it was a varied a set as I’ve seen you play. It struck me how really deep your back catalogue is. Does that present it’s own problems?
Not really a problem, rather an embarrassment of riches. I’m assuming that any band that has been around for so long, and has been allowed to explore itself and develop (which is very rare these days) as a matter of course would have a strong back catalogue. But not many bands are allowed to do that, or sometimes they don’t want to change a winning formula which is…well…death frankly.
The Stranglers have tended to perversely, on the occasions when we have had a winning formula, move away from it. But while that means we’ve sometimes fallen flat on our faces commercially in the short term, in the long term it brings up a rich back catalogue which is the envy of a lot of other artists.
You’ve talked about how, in the last 10 years, you’ve become more appreciated as a band – is that after a long time of being under appreciated?
(Laughs) that’s difficult to gauge. Certainly not from the public’s point of view, but from ‘professional observers’. We made a lot of enemies for ourselves in the media so I suppose they weren’t going to be particularly kind to us when they came to review us and lend us a sympathetic ear. That’s changed because there’s now a new generation of critics.
Critics in the early days set us up against The Clash or The Sex Pistols. We were never going to win that one even though we were probably outselling them, but we weren’t going to get the front covers like they were. They were more photogenic and more fashionable, they were more outrageous in a commercial sense and they courted the press much more than The Stranglers did. So in the early days we were dismissed by the likes of NME and Melody Maker, but nowadays we don’t need that. With the bloggers and social media there’s nothing better than word of mouth, and we’ve benefitted from that because we’ve been honest and we’ve written some fucking great songs which have obviously touched people in slightly different ways than others have.
I saw that in the autumn  you attained your Seventh Dan in Karate and wondered how your practice in Karate informs your music?
I think it does impact because everything you’ve done with passion for so long will impact on other aspects of your life. And the fact I’ve stuck to something which for over forty years (even longer than The Stranglers) has impacted a) on my body – and I’ve got the scars to prove it, and also, b), on my outlook. I’ve never consciously chased the ‘dollar’ and we’ve had the courage to stick to our convictions and people rate that; especially when people are so willing to give up their convictions so easily to earn cash these days.
During last year fans of The Stranglers put together a Top 40 of the band’s songs as part of the 40th Anniversary celebrations, I wondered if there was any surprises in that?
I was surprised that ‘The Raven’ was not number one.
Given that ‘Down in the Sewer’ came top, will you be playing it on the up coming tour?
I think we might. We’ve got a whole list that we want to play. We tend to change the set almost every night on tour, even if it is just one or two pieces because we don’t want to be robots or a fucking cabaret band going through the motions. So we get together a repertoire of around forty songs, and then we choose a set of around twenty from those each night depending on how we feel. Also sometimes the psychology of the order doesn’t work so then we’ve got the luxury to change things. Once or twice I’ve been playing in the middle of a song and have though that it wasn’t working at all, so I’ve just stopped and played something that does feel right at that moment. If you have a large pool of material to choose from then that makes it relatively easy to change. The problem is that there is a hell of a lot to learn. Sometimes I wonder where the hell my head was when I wrote a particular piece.
I’d love you to play Baroque Bordello again, but I know that’s a difficult one.
(Laughs) That’s one of my favourite tunes of all time. I think it’s beautiful and am quite proud of it. Jet wants to play it, and so that is on the list.
We’ve already talked about your past relationship with Hugh, do you have any contact with him anymore.
No. And he’s done some rather underhand things in the last few years which kind of seals our estrangement really. I really don’t understand where he’s at these days and when I hear about with some of the things he’s done, it leaves me rather underwhelmed. After saying he wouldn’t be doing Stranglers material anymore now even his name is in The Stranglers writing. I know that he is pissed of about The Stranglers continuing success despite him leaving, which was initially to pursue a career in acting. Around half his set is now Stranglers material, which is probably in his best interests, but I think he’s a bit bitter.
What would you say to anyone thinking about coming to see The Stranglers live?
Don’t think! Thinking is wrong…do!
In Karate one of the things we try to train is not to think, so if you train to do moves so many times you reach a state of ‘mushin’ (meaning ‘the mind without mind’).
So no thinking just react!
Thank you for speaking to me on such a difficult day.
Thank you, we are all impoverished by what happened in Paris yesterday.